Picking Up the Tab

“WHO PAYS?” REMAINS RECYCLING'S unanswered question. In the “old” days, it wasn't an issue. Back then recycling was a market-driven, supply-and-demand business. If recyclables had value, recycling paid for itself. If they didn't have value, recycling didn't happen.

In the '70s, when curbside programs began collecting newspapers, “who pays” became an issue because the cost to collect old newspapers usually exceeded their resale value. But that cost was small and absorbed by the municipal budget.

After the ill-fated voyage of the garbage barge in the late '80s, many states required recycling at the local level. Multi-material recycling programs had higher costs, but the issue of who would foot the bill was glossed over. Local governments protested that the states were imposing an unfunded mandate. State legislators ignored them and said “let the hauler pay,” forgetting that in many localities the public sector was the hauler.

Some recycling advocates thought the product manufacturers should have to cover the cost of recycling. However, the only successful attempt to do that was California's bottle redemption law, which required that bottle and can manufacturers pay collection and processing costs.

And now, electronics recycling is the cause du jour. Once again, legislators are insisting that something be done about this latest “problem.” The good news is that they are trying to avoid creating unfunded mandates.

E-waste recycling is expensive. The cost to recycle most electronics products is far higher than the value of their components. Legislators are forced to create value so that local governments and haulers don't end up holding the bag. “Advance recycling fees” or “manufacturer responsibility” laws are the best known attempts to create value.

California adopted the recycling fee concept. Golden Sate consumers pay a fee, usually between $6 and $10, when they purchase certain electronic products. The fee goes into a state fund that is used to cover the costs incurred by e-waste collectors and processors. Maine chose a version of a manufacturer's responsibility law in which certain manufacturers are responsible for paying “allowable” recycling costs.

Opponents of California's program note its large bureaucracy and inherent complexity. Opponents of Maine's approach argue that it is not true manufacturer responsibility because those companies are not required to take their products back. They also note that so-called “orphan” products, which were made by companies that no longer exist, get a free ride.

Some recyclers promote “take-back” systems in which each manufacturer would be responsible for collecting and recycling its products. They argue that manufacturers would have an incentive to make their products easier to recycle. Those systems, though, could be economically and environmentally inefficient and could create an entry barrier to new companies or technologies.

The good news is that California and Maine are testing different approaches, acting as laboratories. Yes, a federal approach is preferable because it would allow for national uniformity. But we simply don't know what works and what doesn't. Rather than get it wrong nationally, let's first see what we can learn from Maine and California and then design a better mousetrap.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Association or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: cmiller@envasns.org

The columnist is state programs director for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.